A complex systems approach to biology – a review of How Leopard Changed its Spots by Brian Goodwin

How the Leopard Changed it Spots by Brian Goodwin talks about a different approach to biology. After the genetic and molecular biology revolution 1950s onwards, increasingly the organism has been shifted out of focus in biology. Instead genes and their effect, genocentrism or neo-Darwninism, have taken the central stage. Everything in biology is seen as an “action” of genes in addition to natural selection. This translates to reductionism, everything is reduced to genes which are considered as the most fundamental units of life. This is the dominant approach in biology for some decades now. The terms such as “selfish gene” basically highlight this point. Such an approach sidelines the organism as a whole and its environment and highlights the genes alone. Good draws analogy of “word” of god seen as the final one in scriptures to the code alphabet in the genes, as if their actions and results are inevitable and immutable.

Goodwin in his work argues against such an approach using a complex systems perspective. In the process he also critiques what is an acceptable “explanation” in biology vis-a-vis other sciences. The explanation in biology typically is a historical one, in which features and processes are seen in the light of its inheritance and survival value of its properties. This “explanation” does not explain why certain forms are possible. Goodwin with examples establishes how action of genes alone cannot establish the form of the organism (morphogenesis). Genes only play one of the parts in morphogenesis, but are not solely responsible for it (which is how neo-Darwinist account argue). He cites examples from complex systems such as Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, ant colonies to establish the fact that in any system there are different levels of organisation. And there are phenomena, emergent phenomena, which cannot be predicted on the basis of the properties constituent parts alone. Simple interactions of components at lower level can give rise to (often) surprising properties at higher level. He is very clear that natural selection is universal (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea?!)

> What this makes clear is that there is nothing particularly biological about natural selection: it is simply a term used by biologists to describe the way in which one form replaces another as a result of their different dynamic properties. This is just a way of talking about dynamic stability, a concept used for a long time in physics and chemistry. We could, if we wished, simply replace the term natural selection with dynamic stabilization, the emergence of the stable states in a dynamic system. p. 53

Goodwin uses the term morphogenetic space to convey the possible shape space that an organism can occupy. Thus seen from a complex systems perspective, the various unit of the organism interact to generate the form of the organism. Natural selection then acts as a coarse sieve on these forms with respect to the environmental landscape. The “aim” of the organism is not the climb the fitness lanscape but to achieve dynamic stability.

> The relevant notion for the analysis of evolving systems is dynamic stability: A necessary (though by no means sufficient} condition for the survival of a species is that its life cycle be dynamically stable in a particular environment. This stability refers to the dynamics of the whole cycle, involving the whole organism as an integrated system that is itself integrated into a greater system, which is its habitat. p. 179

Goodwin takes examples of biological model systems and shows how using mathematical models we can generate their forms. Structure of acetabularia (a largish ~1 inch single cell algae), the structure of eye, the Fibonacci pattern seen in many flower structures being the main examples. Also, how the three basic forms of leaf arrangement can be generated by variations on a theme in the morphospace are discussed in detail. The model shows that three major forms are the most probable ones, which is actually substantiated by observations in nature. In these examples, an holistic approach is taken in which genes, competition and natural selection only play a part are not the main characters but are interacting and cooperating with levels of organisation of the organism, environmental factors in the drama of life.

> Competition has no special status in biological dynamics, where what is important is the pattern of relationships and interactions that exist and how they contribute to the behavior of the system as an integrated whole.The problem of origins requires an understanding of how new levels of order emerge from complex patterns of interaction and what the properties of these emergent structures are in terms of their robustness to perturbation and their capacity for self-maintenance. Then all levels of order and organization are recognized as equally important in understanding the behavior of living systems, and the reductionist insistence on some basic material level of cause and explanation, such as molecules and genes, can be recognized as an unfortunate fashion or prejudice that is actually bad science. P.181

Since I am already a believer of the complex systems perspective, I was aware of some of the arguments in this book, but the particular worked examples and their interpretation for biology was a fresh experience.